A three-cornered contest to split anti-BJP votes is ideal for Narendra Modi.
Priyanka Gandhi might succeed or fail in Uttar Pradesh. If the Congress party’s seats remain in single digits, she will be called a failure.
Yet there’s the possibility she could succeed. The novelty value, the obsessive darbari media, her undeniable charisma, her aggressive attacks on Narendra Modi and the BJP will all help make Uttar Pradesh look like a Priyanka versus Modi fight. Perhaps, that is the intent behind her being made in-charge, specifically of eastern UP.
For TRPs and for its innate obsequiousness, the media will ensure Uttar Pradesh looks like a Priyanka vs Modi battle even if the real battle is the BJP vs mahagathbandhan.
Over the last 30 years in UP, the Congress and the BJP have usually done better in the Lok Sabha elections than in Vidhan Sabha elections. The Congress and the BJP are seen as national parties. After all, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are not in the race for the prime minister’s post, even if they aspire to.
The ‘national’ sentiment in the Lok Sabha elections is partly why the Congress won a surprise 21 of the 80 seats in UP in 2009. The Congress itself did not expect more than 15 seats. Such accidents happen when a certain public narrative takes hold. With Priyanka’s entry in UP, it is possible – although not necessary – that many voters might see this as a Congress versus BJP battle for the central government.
The alleged attraction of the Brahmin votes to the Congress is greater in Delhi than on the ground in UP. It is only a small section of Brahmins who feel nostalgic about the good old days when they dominated UP politics through their control of the Congress party. For most Brahmins, the BJP’s Hindutva is a greater pull factor.
Splitting the Muslim vote
But even if Yogi Adityanath’s Thakurwaad pushes some Brahmins towards the Congress, there will also be other voters Priyanka could draw. Most importantly, Muslims. All that the Congress needs to do is to spread rumours that Mayawati could do business with the BJP as it has done in the past.
Once again, we are looking at the spectre of Muslim votes in UP getting divided, and helping the BJP win more seats than it would have in a bipolar contest.
Many analysts are presuming the Congress will only cut the BJP’s upper caste votes. But the announcement of Priyanka Gandhi shows an aggressive strategy whereby the Congress is seeking to win seats and not just play ‘vote katua’.
Who is the real enemy of Congress?
In such a scenario, the Congress could well end up helping the BJP and Narendra Modi.
Perhaps it does not mind doing so, because if the SP-BSP alliance succeeds in UP, it will be at the cost of the Congress. The Congress was looking at near-extinction in UP outside the pocket boroughs of Amethi and Bareilly.
In 2019, both Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati are seeking to be the prime minister. Given that the SP wants to continue its alliance with the BSP even after the Lok Sabha elections, Akhilesh Yadav will only be happy to support Mayawati for PM. That will also pave the way for him to be the UP chief minister again in 2022.
It is thus important for the Congress to not let SP-BSP walk away with the prize slot in UP. Diminishing the scale of the SP-BSP victory in UP is important for the Congress even if it means splitting anti-BJP votes and letting the BJP win some more seats.
In the next few weeks, it will be interesting to watch what Priyanka Gandhi and her party do in UP. Will they give a lot of tickets to Muslims and non-Yadav OBCs, thus trying to damage the SP-BSP prospects? Or, will they give a disproportionately large number of tickets to Brahmins and other upper castes to damage the BJP? Will Priyanka Gandhi actively make it a Priyanka vs Modi battle or will she minutely focus on local aspects seat by seat?
If she succeeds, she will also inevitably help lift the BJP’s performance. After all, a three-way fight is what the BJP has been wanting in UP. The party’s sagging morale with the BSP-SP alliance will now look up.
Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to allow the ‘shilanyas’ at the disputed Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya paved the way for the BJP’s rise in UP. Narasimha Rao’s indecisiveness allowed the fall of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Perhaps, Priyanka Gandhi might continue the legacy of boosting the BJP in UP. The real threat to the Congress is not the BJP, but SP-BSP.